EL PASO, Texas -- Major college football is setting into a strange period of frayed allegiances that could have dramatic implications for UTEP.
The American Athletic Conference became the latest to get into realignment by adding UAB, UTSA, Rice, North Texas, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic from Conference USA, leaving UTEP among eight remaining C-USA schools.
Now that the AAC has made its move, Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Keith Gill declined to comment on reports the 10-football member Sun Belt has extended invitations to some of C-USA’s remaining schools such as Southern Mississippi, Marshall and Old Dominion - which would be good geographic fits - along with FCS powerhouse James Madison.
Several media outlets reported Friday that an announcement by the Sun Belt was likely next week, which could drop C-USA membership to five schools and would lead to questions about the viability of football programs in the conference.
But UTEP Athletic Director Jim Senter told ABC-7 on Friday that he can assure fans that "UTEP will be in a Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conference" when all the dust settles. He declined to elaborate whether that meant C-USA would be adding schools or if UTEP was working on plan to defect to another conference itself. What it does mean is that UTEP has no plans to give it a go as an independent.
The current turbulence has Conference USA fighting for survival - both searching for new members and trying to fend off other poachers. Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod, in a statement issued Friday, said "there are certainly many questions out there, but a great deal is happening behind the scenes."
MacLeod indicated C-USA has been in contact with multiple schools - both FBS and FCS programs - who want to join the conference, but she didn't provide further details of those discussions. Published reports on Friday indicated New Mexico State, Sam Houston State and Tarleton State were among those in talks with C-USA.
The AAC's poaching was, in part, to replace three schools that are scheduled to depart for the Big 12 Conference — which is losing Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC — and is growing to 14 teams. The Sooners and Longhorns say they are staying in put until 2025.
Pinning down an ETA for the AAC’s new additions is complicated because the conference doesn’t realistically have room for the newcomers until the outgoing schools have left. How all of this actually plays out will help determine when the moving pieces will finally be in place.
“So we look forward, down the road, and we’re not certain when they’re going to come in yet. That’s still to be decided,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said.
Those within the AAC believe 2023 is a realistic target for the transition to a 14-team conference after swiping six schools from Conference USA.
But it all starts with Texas and Oklahoma. The Longhorns and Sooners are contractually obligated to the Big 12 until July 2025. The SEC has made it clear that while it is looking forward to having Texas and OU on board, the league is also fine with waiting until then.
Breaking the contract would cost Texas and Oklahoma tens of millions of dollars in exit fees paid to the Big 12, but it is understood that everybody involved would benefit from not stringing out this broken relationship for three more seasons.
The Big 12, after all, already has replacements lined up. The conference in September announced BYU and three AAC powers, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, would be joining —- eventually.
BYU, an independent in football with other sports in the West Coast Conference, is preparing to join the Big 12 in 2023. The three American schools are required to give the conference 27 months’ notice and pay $10 million exit fees. The Big 12 said it expected them to join by no later than summer of 2024. And it left the door open to add more schools down the road.
“We’re living in a very fast-changing athletic environment, and we will be at 14 for a while, we will drop back to 12, and as there are targets of opportunity or as there are situations that dictate that we change composition, we’ll be prepared to do those things,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
Aresco conceded growing to 14 was a way for his conference, which has become a feeder league for the Power Five, to be prepared for future poaching.
“We decided that there was strength in numbers,” Aresco said. “We also looked around and said you know there are some schools that we might be interested in later on, why not, you know, think about taking them now?”